Proposals to “sequence the DNA of all life on Earth” suffer from the same issues as “naming all the species”

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There’s a short piece on the website of the journal Science this week entitled “Biologists propose to sequence the DNA of all life on Earth“.  I don’t propose to say much about it except to say to anyone interested: read that piece, then read my recent post entitled “The road to degradation: is ‘naming all the species’ achievable or even desirable?

In my view “naming all the species” and “sequencing the DNA of all life” suffer the same issues and flaws. At a time when research funding is becoming ever more difficult to obtain (in part because it’s becoming more concentrated on fewer institutions and individuals) such multi-billion dollar initiatives make great headlines, but are they value for money?

At the moment Science also has a series of stories on its conservation news web pages, and you can find others all over the web, that point to our inability to conserve even large, charismatic species such as elephants and the big cats, and how this in turn can impact on human survival and wellbeing.  Perhaps we should devote more funding and more research energy to fixing these issues before we attempt such large-scale projects?

As always, your opinions and comments are welcomed.

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Links to some recent pollinator-related papers, posts, projects…. and pedals

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For weeks now I’ve been meaning to post some links to pollinator-related items that have caught my eye, but have only just found time to pull them together, hence some of these are a little dated but should still be of interest:

  • By pure coincidence Hazel Chapman (the senior author of that paper) came to Northampton a few weeks ago to give a seminar about her Nigerian Montane Forest Project which is well worth checking out and which, in the future, will have a large pollinator focus.
  • The Journal of Pollination Ecology (where I remain an editor) has a new volume out – it’s open access and has some really nice papers – here’s the link.
  • There’s been a few stories doing the rounds about robot pollinators and how they are going to replace insects.  It’s all nonsense, of course, and in a recent blog post Dave Goulson nails the arguments very well – see: Are robotic bees the future? [spoiler alert – the answer’s “No”].  Likewise, over on her blog, Manu Saunders opines that: “Artificial pollinators are cool, but not the solution“.  What the technologists who are promoting these ideas, and related concepts around the “Internet of Things”, don’t seem to get is that all of this tech has environmental costs associated with it: resource/pollution costs for making it; energy costs for using it; and disposal/pollution costs when it reaches the end of its life.  Applying a green wash of “let’s use drones for pollinating flowers” doesn’t make the tech any more environmentally sustainable, quite the opposite.  Sorry, rant over…
  • Ben Geslin and colleagues have written an interesting review in Advances in Ecological Research called “Massively Introduced Managed Species and Their Consequences for Plant–Pollinator Interactions” that focuses on both mass-flowering crop plants (e.g. oil seed rape) and domesticated, highly abundant pollinators such as honey bees, and what their increase might mean for natural communities of plants and pollinators, particularly in sensitive environments such as oceanic islands.
  • There’s a guitar effects pedal called the Pollinator – from the review:  “The Pollinator is a living thing, sensitive to its environment and surroundings, and it becomes an extension of the guitarist playing it.”  Quite.
  • Nine species of bee in the genus Perdita that are new to science have been described from localities in the the southwestern USA.  Here’s a link to a lovely video that shows these bees, their distinguishing features, and how they were named (mainly for characters from Shakespeare’s plays).  Not very impressed with the snarky “if scientists had bothered to look” title of the article though.
  • Finally, a new citizen science project has been launched designed to understand how hoverflies evolve mimicry of bees and wasps – looks interesting, please take part – here’s the link.  Just be aware, it’s a bit addictive!

As always, feel free to suggest links to items you found of interest.

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Spiral Sunday #22 – gravestone carving on a long hike

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Karin and I went for a long hike today in the north of the county, a five mile circuit from Easton on the Hill, through Stamford, and back past the amazing ruins of Wothorpe Towers.  In the churchyard at Easton I photographed today’s Spiral Sunday image, a stylised botanical form carved into a slab of the local limestone, a 19th century grave marker for a former inhabitant of the village.  As a bonus, here’s the full carving: I really like the twining bindweed.

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Waxwings on my birthday!

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Waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus) may possibly be my favourite bird, and I’ve posted a couple of times about encounters with them – see: Waxwing winter and Waxwings in Northants.

So for my birthday last weekend I was stunned and delighted by a gift from my wife Karin: a specially commissioned illustration of waxwings by a very talented artist friend of ours, Stephen Valentine, who is based in Denmark.

I think Stephen has beautifully captured both the alert intelligence of these birds, always on the look-out for food and predators, and their subtle and striking colouration.  It’s such an honour to own a piece like this!

If you’re interested, Stephen regularly takes commissions; you can find him on Facebook by searching for “Studio Sejerø”, or I can put you in touch with him.

Thanks Karin, thanks Stephen! 🙂

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Spiral Sunday #21 – Happy Birthday Mr Darwin!

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On 12th February 1809 Mr Charles Robert Darwin was born, so I couldn’t let this week’s Spiral Sunday pass without wishing the great man Happy Birthday!  I used Festisite to make the spiral text and then played around with an image of Darwin using PowerPoint; nothing too fancy, but I think it’s effective.

Have a great #DarwinDay everyone!

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What’s green, waxy and smells of cheese? The flowers of Deherainia smaragdina!

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A tweet this morning from Chris Howell at Birmingham Botanical Garden reminded me that for some time I’ve been meaning to post up images of an enigmatic flower that has intrigued me for over a decade, ever since I encountered it in the Palm House at Kew.

It was the smell that I first noticed: strong and pungent like a ripe blue cheese, or unwashed feet.  This drew me to a small, evergreen shrub with the wonderfully eliding name of Deherainia smaragdina, a Mexican member of the primula family (Primulaceae) though older sources put it in the Theophrastaceae, a family no longer recognised by most botanists.

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At first I couldn’t spot where the smell was coming from, then I saw the flowers: larger than I was expecting (a couple of centimetres across) given that they were not immediately obvious, and very waxy and stiff to the touch.  In fact (to the human eye) it was quite well camouflaged against the plant’s own leaves, not at all what one expects from a flower.  However camouflaged flowers that rely only on scent for attracting insects are not unknown in the plant kingdom, and probably under-recorded: see for example Adam Shuttleworth and Steve Johnson’s work on wasp-pollinated flowers of asclepiads (Apocynaceae) in South Africa, where the “cryptic colouring” is similar in reflectance to the background vegetation.  “Smaragdine” means emerald-like, so a very fitting species name.

The scent tends to come and go, perhaps affected by temperature or light levels.  Under the scanning electron microscope the surface of the petals has some intriguing bulbous cells (which I’d hypothesise produce the scent) and the wavy, waxy covering of the cuticle is clearly visible:

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Another intriguing thing about Deherainia smaragdina is that the bisexual flowers are in a male phase when they first open, moving into female phase only after a day or two. Compare the two flowers below.  In the male phase (left) the pollen-bearing stamens are centered in the flower, hiding the female stigma (which is probably not receptive at this stage); over time the stamens move outwards to expose the stigma and the flower goes into female phase (the flower on the right):

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Why this plant should smell of cheese is a mystery, but it’s probably attracting a particular type of pollinator – though what they are no one knows !  It’s never been studied, as far as I’m aware.  We might predict from the scent that it’s flies, but I think that wasps are also a possibility.  If anyone is doing field work in the parts of Mexico where this plant grows, please look out for it and try to photograph flower visitors: I’d love to hear from you!

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Spiral Sunday #20 – a wooden bannister

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As he was leaving work on Friday evening my colleague Dr Mu Mu commented on how he was looking forward to today’s Spiral Sunday.  That’s the first time anyone has said such a thing, so this week’s image is dedicated to him!  It’s the carved end of a mahogany bannister that he passes most days on his way to and from the office in the Newton Building of the University of Northampton.

The Newton Building was constructed in 1915 so the wood was probably harvested from the wild in South or Central America, rather than being from a plantation.  These solid, knife-straight bannisters have lasted over 100 years without warping, and will no doubt last for a century or more to come.  I love their smooth solidity, but they are a beautiful, daily reminder of the history of tropical deforestation.

 

 

 

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Spiral Sunday #19 – a fragment of shell

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Whenever I take a walk on a beach or in the countryside I’m liable to pick up interesting bits of shell, stone, sea glass or wood to take home as a memento of the visit.  Doesn’t always work, though, as I forget where I found this fragment of shell!  I have a feeling that it was on Tenerife.  I love the way the sea has rounded the sharp edges and a piece of stone has forced its way into the opening, a perfect sculpture in miniature as today’s Spiral Sunday contribution.

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The road to degradation: is “naming all the species” achievable or even desirable?

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In 2013 Mark Costello, Robert May and Nigel Stork published a review paper in the journal Science called “Can We Name Earth’s Species Before They Go Extinct?”  It’s a paper that I discuss with my students in their final year Biodiversity and Conservation module, and it always generates a lot of interest, and it’s has been well cited since it first appeared (143 citations* to date according to Web of Science).  There was an interesting response by Mora et al., with a riposte by Costello et al., but overall the original paper has been rather influential in framing some discussions about taxonomic effort and description of species, and the idea that we can “name everything” with additional resources.  At the end of the review Costello and colleagues answered their own question by stating: “We believe that with modestly increased effort in taxonomy and conservation, most species could be discovered and protected from extinction” [my emphasis].

Is their optimism justified?  Can “most species be discovered”?  And what are the implications for how we go about “discovering” these species that are unknown to science?

In my professional life I’ve been fortunate enough to carry out field work with some great colleagues in some wonderful parts of the world, including tropical rainforest and savannah in Guyana and Gabon, mountain scrub in the High Andes of Peru, seasonal dry forest in Australia, montane grasslands in South Africa, Namibian desert, and Brazilian cerrado and Atlantic rainforest.  All of these were sites where non-biologists would rarely venture: off the beaten track and (usually**) away from the typical tourist haunts.  It would be tempting to describe these places as “remote” but really they were not, because they all shared something in common: accessibility.  We were able to reach these sites by traveling along roads, of variable quality, usually in four-wheel drive vehicles.  The roads were often not in good condition, and frequently not metaled, but they were roads nonetheless.

It’s sometimes said that if one were to map the geographical coordinates of plant specimens stored in herbariums such as the one at Kew, you would end up with a road map of the world.  That’s because collecting biological specimens, or carrying out field work, requires us to be able to gain access to an area.  And accessibility usually means roads, unless one is working on the coast or along a river or lake, or have lots and lots of funding to allow teams to be helicoptered into an area (which is rare, but makes for exciting television).  Therefore most collecting of biological specimens is done in areas not far from roads.

So, any initiative that intends to “name all the species” in a particular group is going to require access to the remotest parts of the planet, areas that currently have no roads running through them.

There are still areas of the world that we can consider “remote” and “wilderness”, areas that are more than 100km from the nearest road – as a study published at the end of 2016 demonstrated.  But these are often found in the most biologically rich parts of the planet, for example tropical rainforest and mountainous areas, where we wouldn’t necessarily want to put roads to make them accessible to taxonomists (or even ecologists).  That’s because where roads go, people go, and accessibility to an area is usually followed by exploitation and degradation: illegal hunting, logging, mining, poaching of specimens for sale, etc. etc.

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Now, don’t get me wrong, taxonomy is absolutely vital to the conservation of the earth’s biodiversity.  It also underpins much ecological, bio-molecular and agricultural research and technology.  But the trade off for taxonomists is that they must gather their specimens and data from accessible areas, and that often means roads, and roads mean degradation.

The impetus for this post came from Twitter where a taxonomist highlighted the very good work done by the Virtual Institute of Spider Taxonomy Research (VINT) and described it as an “initiative to discover all spider species of the world in 30 years”.  Interestingly I can’t find that aspiration on the VINT website, but if it exists I’m not sure it’s achievable for spiders or any other diverse group of species, without being able to access parts of the world that are best left un-degraded.  Again, this is particularly true of the tropics where species can have very limited distributions.  A number of years ago an Australian botanist told me about how he was only able to collect some epiphytic Hoya specimens in Papua New Guinea by going into areas of rainforest that had been illegally logged, removing the plants from crowns of the felled trees, with no little risk to his own safety if the loggers had spotted him.  Some of those species might have remained undescribed if the area had not been opened up by a road prior to deforestation.  That would have been a loss for Hoya taxonomy, but surely positive for conservation.

Can “most species be discovered”?  Is this even a desirable thing?  I used to think so, because of the oft-stated view that we can’t conserve what we don’t know.  Now I’m not so sure, for reasons I hope I’ve articulated.  But as always I’d welcome your comments and criticisms.

 

*Including one in the conference: Annual Forum on Grumpy Scientists: the Ecological Conscience of a Nation:Royal Zoological Society, Sydney, Australia.  I’d have liked to have been a fly on the wall at that meeting!

**Usually, but not always: I have a few papers where some or all data collection was done in and around back-packers hostels, hotels, and tourist lodges.  Hey, you take your opportunities where you find them in this game!

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Spiral Sunday #18 – fossils from Glasgow

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Spiral Sunday this week is brought to you by Fergus Chadwick, and is (in his words) a “spiral of spirals”: a spiral display of spiral ammonite fossils at the Kelvin Grove Museum in Glasgow.  Thanks for the photo Fergus!

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